Representation and Reality: Promoting the undertaking trade in late eighteenth century Bath

This guest post comes from Dr Dan O’Brien Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath.

Undertakers in at th death.jpg

A man with closed eyes walking into a skeletal death figure, a group of anxious undertakers run after them. Coloured etching by R. Newton, 1794, after himself. Credit: Wellcome Collection

We begin with an unusual scene.

“A street, which discovers Recluse’s house – undertakers struggling to get at the door – knock and ring repeatedly and pulling one another from the door – One gets half in at the window, he is pulled out again – then at the door”

In the 1784 play Better Late Than Never, the affluent Bath resident Mr Peter Recluse, feigns his death after his scheming heir declares him dead in the local newspaper. This is a not entirely original tactic in eighteenth century theatre, but it does allow the elderly gentleman to combat the plans of the nefarious Mr. Swindal who intends to discredit Mr. Recluse’s son and marry his sister Phoebe, purely for economic gain. This is successful due to the assistant of his butler, Mr Handy. However, his ‘deceased’ state draws an unfortunate but humorous consequence.

At the beginning of the second act, three undertakers arrive at the house to perform Peter Recluse’s funeral. The men named Coffin, Grimly and Finis are introduced amid a furious argument on the doorstep of Recluse’s household, disputing who arrived first at the property and should win first hearing. As the servant, Mr. Handy, questions each undertaker the audience is presented with behaviour, which is far from the sober, solemn reputation of the trade. Coffin is the eventual ‘winner’ although he learns, to his disappointment, that Mr. Recluse is not dead. The candid nature of this conversation is made more humorous by the undertaker’s refusal to accept that Mr Recluse is not actually dead. The undertakers return to the Recluse household in the fourth act where they aggressively attempt to force entry. We began with the set description for this scene, a physical encounter in which their verbal taunts are exchanged for physical aggression. As the undertakers struggle to enter the property the stage directions indicate an ‘out-cry of I’m dead! I’m kill’d’, suggesting the undertakers’ violent intent toward each other in the contest to enter the property.1 There are many amusing and surprising moments in the play, but we will focus on these scenes specifically.

We should not interpret these men as a facsimile of Bath’s undertakers. After all, there are many other depictions, printed, written, and performed, of undertakers who are over-eager to bury the dying, insensitive to the bereaved and predatory in the behaviour towards the living and dead. By mimicking these elements, the play presents the audience with undertakers who would be easy to recognise in their short visits to the stage. The humour of their scenes would require little introduction or explanation, and popular stereotypes could be anticipated by the audience. What distinguishes the undertakers of Better Late Than Never, is the location of the scene, Bath, and the open competition that is depicted between different undertakers, with several characters on stage at the same time, arguing and fighting.

Undertakers were an increasing presence in prosperous, fashionable cities such as Bath. A city with many affluent families and social climbers who were perfectly suited to the aggrandising products of the trade. We can identify sixty-one individuals who used the title of ‘undertaker’ in the three decades of the late eighteenth century, 1770-1800; the period in which Better Late Than Never was published. It is likely that this total is not comprehensive, as these numbers predominantly reflect people who were willing to advertise their services through newspapers. It is important to note that funeral services were provided by some tradespeople who did not adopt the title of ‘undertaker’. It is also significant that in Bath, undertaking was typically a supplementary trade which was performed by artisans and tradespeople in addition to their primary businesses.

We may therefore use these overdrawn and exaggerated gentlemen of Better Late Than Never as a prompt to consider the reality of undertaking in Bath. Specifically, their fight prompts us to consider what actual promotion looked like in Bath.

In late eighteenth century, Bath, there were two forms of promotive behaviour with which undertakers could attempt to bolster and improve their status as professionals. Public claims of experience and qualification are the first example which will be considered, these were often incorporated into advertisements in local newspapers. The relocation and redesign of shops is the second form of competitive behaviour which similarly indicated that an undertaker was successful and well-prepared for the customer’s demands.

In Better Late Than Never, the undertaker Mr. Coffin supports his claims of appropriateness by arguing that he ‘was regularly brought up in the business’. He argues that Finis and Grimly lack experience in the trade and are ‘intruders and bunglers in it.’

As suggested in the play, longevity was presented as an important quality of a ‘good’ undertaking business. This was because it indicated that a business was successful, and its proprietor was adequately skilled. In a period when many new undertakers were establishing themselves, the businesses which had existed for an extended period could boast greater experience. Older businesses could also rely on the returning custom of families who had required funerary products in the past. This could be disrupted when an undertaker died or retired, so it was often necessary for their successor to publish an announcement identifying themselves. This was important because convention dictated that the business would continue in the name of the successor and it was therefore necessary that customers associated the new name with the old business. The language of these advertisements consequently emphasised the continuity between predecessor and successor. Familial ties were stressed by individuals who had inherited the business of a deceased relative, but it is apparent that familial ties were not entirely adequate in all instances, particular those in which women inherited businesses.

In 1793, George Tar advertised his business with a prominently placed reference to his 25 years employment as foreman to the Bath undertaker William Cross.2 Tar appealed to his former master’s customers because Cross had left the undertaking business and no other members of his family intended to continue in the trade. The length of Tar’s service was important because it assured customers that they could expect the same service they had become accustomed to with Cross. Tar’s claims were made in the context of competition with the undertakers, William and John Evill who had been trading for many years in Milsom Street, Bath.3 The Evills courted Cross’ customers with similar claims of a close relationship with the retired undertaker, although this was a collaborative relationship and the Evills had not worked for Cross.4

Longevity of service could also be a beneficial quality if an undertaker’s long service included work in the capital. One such example, William Bartlett of St. James Street, Bath, had worked for the undertaker Francis Deschamps at Rathbone Place in London, during the 1750s.5 It is possible that Bartlett’s decision to diversify his upholstering business was influenced by his experience of the funeral trade in London. Bartlett’s business differed from most Bath undertakers because he chose the dual titles of ‘undertaker’ and ‘coffin maker,’ perhaps reflecting a specialism that he had learned whilst working for Deschamps. Another Bath undertaker, named Treacher, advertised his former duties as a groom of the suite as evidence for his pedigree as an upholder, appraiser, and undertaker (see fig 1).5

fig1

Fig. 1. Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 14 May 1767.

A lengthy career suggested that an undertaker had the necessary skills to perform a funeral, but it was also important to assure customers that the business was currently successful and dependable for the ever-increasing range of funerary items. After all, nobody would want their funeral to be overseen by an undertaker who had a lengthy career as an undertaker’s man but only a small, fragile business that depended on the work of many other partners.

In Better Late Than Never the success of the undertakers’ businesses is testified by their accounts of lavish lifestyles and statused company. The undertakers’ descriptions prompt the servant, Mr. Handy to remark that ‘I fancy the business of an undertaker must be very profitable,’ Mr. Finis is related to members of the City corporation and possesses the right of free entry to the theatre (which he attempts to use as a bribe). Grimly describes a life of fine dining and good wine, stating that ‘there is a not a man at Bath can produce such a sample.’ The social achievements of the real undertakers of Bath were not discussed in their advertising, but their premises feature heavily, as evidence for their own prosperity.

The design and appearance of undertakers’ premises was frequently mentioned in advertisements and indicates that their owners were both successful and aware of fashion. The focus on interior aesthetics was evident in the description of G. Strawbridge’s ‘commodious premises’ which offered him greater space for his goods than his original shop.6 There are several reasons why these qualities would be desirable for an undertaker, even if a visit to the shop was not entirely necessary for the organisation of a funeral. The quality of the building demonstrated that the tradesman was successful because large premises and new stock required capital. Furthermore, the size of the shop was implied that the undertaker had a comparatively large range of goods. Demonstrating this, P. Grigg announced his ‘more commodious shop’ in an advertisement that outlined a new stock of goods that he was selling. Grigg had moved to 19 Stall Street, a shop which already had an association with the undertaking trade through a Mr. John Bakers.

fig2 (1)

Fig. 2. Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 27 November 1788.

Warehouses were a stronger indicator that a tradesman had a large and comprehensive stock of items, a detail which was an attractive quality for a specialist retailer who claimed to be able to serve all aspects of their trade. In the Bath undertaking trade, several undertakers operated or opened ‘warehouses’ which accumulated their funerary goods with items from their other additional trades. The operation of warehouses was dominated by undertakers who worked in the textile trades, such as drapery, haberdashery, or silk mercery. Lawton & Marsh declared their partnership as undertakers after opening a warehouse alongside Lawton’s woollen drapery shop in the Abbey Churchyard in 1788 (see fig 2). The warehouse performed a significant role in their new business by enabling them to merge the stocks of their silk mercery and woollen drapery businesses which included items that were useful in the funeral trade (gloves, scarves, hatbands). As a consequence, they promised to serve funerals as cheap as in London because the warehouse possessed a ‘great stock of SILKS and SATTINS for funerals.’7 As demonstrated by Lawton & Marsh, the warehouse reduced an undertaker’s dependency on other tradesmen for the supply of funerary goods. The ability to stock an extensive range of items was positive for the consumer because it enabled an undertaker in Bath to compete with both the prices and the range of goods available in the capital. William and John Evill hosted their business in a ‘Sheffield, Birmingham and London warehouse’ a title which drew emphasis to the scope of their stock. The Evill’s business was distinguished by its retail of items from ‘northern manufactories’ and ‘London tradesmen.’8

The reality of self-promotion in eighteenth century Bath was less dramatic than in theatre. Undertakers made their appeals to customers through an established press that allowed them to present their changing businesses as appropriate, even essential, for a respectable funeral. Coffin, Finis and Grimly’s competition reflects the wider truth of a trade in which an increasing number of practitioners was leading to competition, innovation, and failure. Through the evidence used we can see that Bath’s undertakers did not fight with their fists but engaged in a campaign to preserve their businesses through the printed word.

Dr Dan O’Brien
Visiting Research Fellow
Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath

 

Sources:

  1. Davies, W., ‘Better Late Than Never’, in Plays Written for a Private Theatre. By William Davies (London: 1786), pp. 261-364.
  2. Bath Chronicle, 18 December 1793.
  3. William Evill and John were undertakers at 18 Milsom Street, they had advertised as early as 1778: Bath Chronicle, 11 June 1778.
  4. Bath Chronicle, 26 December 1793.
  5. Bath Chronicle, 27 October 1768.
  6. Bath Chronicle, 14 May 1767.
  7. Bath Chronicle, 16 March 1769.
  8. Bath Chronicle, 11 June 1778.
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